Heroin and Opioids: Westchester County’s new plan to combat drug epidemic
June 7, 2017 | By David Robinson
Surges in heroin and drug deaths have prompted Westchester County officials to launch a program focused on improving addiction treatment, community outreach and law enforcement efforts.
About 200 people gathered Wednesday at Westchester County Center in White Plains for a forum on the initiative, citing concerns about the latest opioid-related death statistics in Westchester, up more than 200 percent between 2010 and 2015, from 27 deaths to 83.
“Westchester, like all counties across the state and really in the country, now is facing a lethal enemy that grows deadlier every day,” said County Executive Rob Astorino, referring to the heroin and prescription pain pills flooding communities and driving the drug crisis.
The forum comes on the heels of a national warning this week about the rise of deadly opioids like fentanyl, which are more lethal than heroin. Law enforcement personnel are also being warned to wear protective clothing when around the drug due to is extreme toxicity.
The proliferation of the synthetic opiod fentanyl, often trafficked and packaged as heroin, is up to 50 times more lethal than heroin and the potential threat to law enforcement and other first responders is “stunning,” said acting U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Rosenberg.
Westchester’s anti-drug program, called Project WORTHY, builds upon others at the state and federal level that bring together leaders from public health, law enforcement and community service organizations.
Government officials described a range of plans to reduce addiction stigma, curb the illicit drug trade and expand treatment access for the growing ranks of New Yorkers hooked on heroin and chemically similar opioid-based pain medications.
Some speakers told stories of loved ones killed by drug addiction, with Astorino describing how the devastating loss struck home when he comforted friends whose 22-year-old daughter died recently of an overdose.
“That was one of the most difficult wakes I have ever attended,” Astorino said, recalling family and friends crying over the casket of a promising young woman killed by a downward spiral into opioid addiction that took just six months.
“There was something about this (death) that was so awful and shook me to my core,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are: If you’re a city, a town, a village, or a tiny little hamlet, really in any part of our county, this is affecting every single one of us.”
Public-health officials, including Dr. Mark Herceg, commissioner of community mental health in Westchester, said the death toll nationally reached 59,000 drug deaths per year, surpassing gun violence and motor vehicle crashes.
Herceg and other experts attributed recent spikes in drug deaths to fentanyl, which prompted a warning this week from federal authorities about the heightened risk, USA TODAY reported.
Accidental contact with a quantity equivalent to five or six grains of table salt can be deadly if inhaled or absorbed through skin abrasions, Rosenberg said, adding that local officers should wear gloves, masks, protective glasses and shoe covers when dealing with the substance.
“We need everyone to know how lethal this is,” Rosenberg said.
Westchester’s drug-crisis initiative is part of a national push to reverse years of unchecked painkiller abuse over the past decade, which led many down the path to heroin, a chemical cousin and cheaper street drug that Mexican cartels are smuggling into the U.S. in record amounts.
Herceg and Dr. Sherlita Amler, commissioner of Westchester health department, noted plans include organizing regular community outreach events and sharing various government resources, such as $25.6 million in federal grants being funneled to New York in coming years to combat its drug crisis.
Another aspect of the plan is county-led training events for the use of opioid antidotes like naloxone, which have revived people from at least 153 drug overdoses in Westchester since 2014, Amler said. More than 1,100 police officers and 1,900 community members have received training under Westchester’s program.
Still, drug deaths have rocked Westchester’s diverse population of nearly 1 million, and new statewide data suggested the opioid epidemic has infiltrated all walks of life, from affluent New York City suburbs to poverty-stricken rural communities across upstate’s rust-belt.
A video played during Wednesday’s forum featured four stories of pain medication leading to addiction, detailing how the drug scourge didn’t discriminate in touching the lives a young mother, an artist, a high school senior and 25-year-old man in jail.
Meanwhile, Westchester had the third-highest percentage increase in drug deaths per 100,000, from 5.4 to 12, according to a report by The Rockefeller Institute of Government that analyzed data from 2010 to 2015.
Rockland’s drug deaths per 100,000 also spiked from 6.4 to 11.3, which is above the statewide average of 10.7, the data show.
At the forum, Westchester officials noted a county-led team of public-health, law enforcement and community leaders is being formed in the near future as part of the drug crisis initiative, and further details are available by calling (914) 995-5220 or by emailing projectWORTHY@westchestergov.com.